Sunday, November 17, 2013

Viet Staple: Nuoc Mam (Dipping Sauce)

Fish sauce (nuoc mam) is to Vietnamese people like ketchup is to Americans. It's our condiment of choice. Really, it's not even a condiment, it is a main ingredient!

While the bottle of fish sauce usually sits in a kitchen cabinet, what usually sits in the fridge? A diluted version that is sweet, spicy, salty, and sour. Some people call it "nuoc mam cham" but in my household growing up, we just call it "nuoc mam" -- I guess it's because we knew we wanted the diluted sauce depending on what we were eating, e.g. banh xeo, banh cuon.

My mom's fridge always has two jars of prepared fish sauce at the ready. I mean, we use the stuff A LOT. And when you're making it, it's just easier to make a huge batch since you don't want your house smelling like cooked fish sauce all the time.

So what do you usually this sauce for? Most Viet folks already know, but in case you don't, here are the normal uses:

Broken rice plate (com tam bi). This plate is from Vietnam and the nuoc mam is in the little plastic baggies. 

Banh cuon (rice rolls)!

Banh xeos also need a dipping sauce! Especially this jumbo one.

We also use it for vermicelli bowls and dips for spring rolls and eggrolls.

Every family has their recipe for the ubiquitous dipping sauce but I'm obviously partial to my mom's recipe. I think it's a good balance of salty, sweet and tangy. It's also a "cooked" version.

When you are making this, make sure your kitchen is well ventilated because it is PUNGENT! You've been warned.

Nuoc mam "cham"

1 cup fish sauce (I use the Squid brand to make this sauce)
2 cups water
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 lime (cut into suprêmes - basically the meat of the lime)
5-10 garlic cloves minced (add or take away depending on your affinity to garlic)
2-5 thai bird chilis sliced(add or take away depending on how spicy you like it)


1. Place the fish sauce, water, sugar and vinegar into a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved.

2. While the fish sauce is "cooking," put the lime segments, garlic and chilis into a mortar (if you have one). Use the pestle to smush it all up.

Lime before cutting it into supremes.


Lime supremes in... 

then tons of garlic...

Thai bird chilis from my garden. Make sure you wash your hands after handling these guys.

Everyone into the container...

I don't have a mortar and pestle, so I use a small bowl (in this case, my pyrex) and the end of a dowel to smush it. Fancy, I know.

3. Taste the sauce to see if the flavor profiles are to your liking. Add more water if you like it less salty, more sugar if you prefer a sweeter version, etc.
Note: I usually end up using 2 1/2 cups of water and 1-2 tablespoons extra of sugar.

4. Add the mixed lime/garlic/chili mixture to the fish sauce pot. Let it sit for 5 minutes over a low heat to mellow out the garlic flavor.

5. Taste the mixture again and adjust to your liking. 

6. Allow the sauce to cool before you put it up in the fridge. I put mine in a Lock-N-Lock! You don't want this stuff spilling/leaking in your fridge. It keeps indefinitely in the fridge.

Great amber color and tons of garlic, chilis and lime!

When you're ready to serve the sauce, just add a dollop of chili garlic sauce and you're ready to go!


  1. Please come make pho for me. I am so cold. :(

    1. It's 85 degrees here today, miss TX yet? :p Have you found a delish pho place yet? Miss your face.